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02/27/2008

New Island and Carcass Island

We awoke just off of New Island in the West Falklands, but we had to take Expedition Leader Lou Sanson’s word for it, as the thick fog carried through the night and we couldn’t see the island despite being only a half a mile from it. We landed on a white sand beach that looked like something you’d see on a sun-basking vacation in the Caribbean. As we crossed to the far side of the island, the aroma of guano became stronger in the fog and, shortly after, the sound of waves crashing on the rocks became apparent.

We arrived at the edge of a mixed breeding colony of rockhopper penguins, blue-eyed shags and black-browed albatross. The birds were scattered on the edge of an amphitheater of rock, which dropped steeply into a ravine that made its way down to the sea. The penguins had completed their breeding cycle, and were now standing around on the steep rocky outcroppings in the midst of their annual catastrophic molt.

The stars of the show were the enormous downy albatross chicks, perched atop their columnar dirt nests awaiting the return of their parents with a meal to share with them. They had hatched back in early December and now, at almost 3 months of age, we witnessed them stretching their wings, preparing for that first flight they will have to take in another month or so. The albatross chicks were sitting quietly, only disturbed by the occasional brown skua or striated caracara that landed a little too close for their liking. A few claps of the bill were enough to convince the potential predators to move on.

After a peaceful walk back to the landing, we stopped in the tiny shop and museum for a look, and then sat on the beach to take it all in. Back on the Explorer II, we gathered in the Main Lounge to hear from special guest Tony Chater, a longtime resident of New Island. Tony spoke about the changes he’s seen during his time in the Falklands, including increases in pollution, declines in rockhopper penguin populations, improvements in communication to the outside world, and substantial increases in tourism. The talk was very informative, and we certainly appreciated his sharp wit.

The Explorer II spent the early afternoon transiting to Carcass Island, where we landed on a wide sandy beach covered at the high tide line with kelp washed ashore. Carcass Island is one of the few islands in the Falklands where mammalian predators (mice, rats, cats, etc.) have not been introduced, and the impact of this on the island’s birdlife was immediately obvious. Small brown tussacbirds searched around in the dried kelp on the shore for insects and small crustaceans to eat.

Also on the beach were gentoo penguins and Patagonian crested ducks. We spent considerable time observing these and other wildlife before hiking two miles through the tussac grass and finally descending back down to the shoreline. Small groups of Magellanic penguins were gathered on the exposed rocks at low tide, running though the ins and outs of courtship. Their calls echoed through the still air, sounding remarkably similar to the sound a donkey makes. Also on the rocks were both species of oystercatchers, a pair of speckled teal, and tussacbirds running around everywhere you looked. A caracara and a black-crowned night-heron were fishing in a small tidepool where some fish had become trapped.

Once the sound of our stomachs growling could be heard over the calls of the penguins, we headed to the home of Rob and Lorraine McGill for some tea and homemade cakes and cookies. The planted trees and shrubs around the house created a lush and green retreat from the sea of grass that dominates the landscape. The house itself was lovely, as were our hosts, and we had a hard time tearing ourselves away once it was time to return to the ship.

Back on the Explorer II, we relaxed over a drink and then dinner. Thoughts of Stanley, the capital of the Falklands, lingered in our heads as we drifted off to sleep.

   

Explorer 2 officers toast the weather at Captain Biasutti's Welcome Cocktail

We cross New Island to the Black-browed Albatross and Rockhopper Penguin colony

We meet the Magellanic Penguin at Carcass Island at our afternoon landing

A splendid tea awaits us at the Carcass Island home of Rob and Lorraine McGill

Lively Commerson's Dolphins follow our zodiacs back to the ship!


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